Man awarded $450K after surprise office birthday party triggers anxiety

A stock photo of a birthday cake with candles and sparklers.
A stock photo of a birthday cake with candles and sparklers. Betsie Van der Meer / Getty Images

A Kentucky man has been awarded US$450,000 after his former employer threw him a surprise birthday party when he specifically asked them not to.

Kevin Berling told his office manager at Gravity Diagnostics that he didn’t want the customary surprise party thrown for employees on their birthday because he suffers from an anxiety disorder and would not do well at such a gathering, reports NBC News.

Regardless, the company threw him a party over a lunch hour in August 2019.

“The person who was responsible for the birthday parties who he talked to flat out forgot about his request,” Berling’s lawyer, Tony Bucher, told LINK NKY. “She didn’t do it to be mean. She said she would accommodate it and she just forgot.”

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Bucher said Berling began to have a panic attack when he learned about the party and went out to his car to regulate his breathing before returning to his workday.

However, the next day management called Berling in for a meeting to discuss the party.

“According to my client, she started reading him the riot act and accused him of stealing other co-workers’ joy,” Bucher said, adding that Berling started to have another panic attack as a result of the confrontation.

“At this point he starts employing other coping techniques that he’s worked on for years with his therapist,” Bucher said. “The way he described it is he started hugging himself and asked them to please stop.”

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According to Fortune, Berling was sent home and told not to return that week. A few days later, the lawsuit claims, he was sent a termination letter citing the party and ensuing events as the reason for his firing.

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Berling sued Gravity Diagnostics for disability discrimination and retaliation and was awarded almost half-a-million dollars on March 31 of this year.

The court awarded him $150,000 in lost wages and benefits and $300,000 for suffering, embarrassment and loss of self-esteem.

The founder and COO of the company, Julie Brazil, told the New York Times that Berling was terminated for violating a “workplace violence policy” and they stand by their decision.

She told the news site that Berling clenched his fists and his face turned red, scaring his supervisors.

“They were absolutely in fear of physical harm during that moment,” she said. “They both are still shaken about it today.”

My employees were the victims in this case, not the plaintiff,” Brazil told LINK NKY.

Bucher responded in a statement, NBC reports, saying “employers … shouldn’t make assumptions about individuals with mental health issues.

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“Kevin was an exceptional employee that went above and beyond for his employer and if they would have taken a step back it would have been clear that he did not present any danger at all.”

Bucher also told the Times his client’s actions in the meeting were efforts to calm himself during a panic attack and not an act of aggression.

Brazil says her company plans to challenge the verdict.

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